“What a difference a year makes”… as the saying goes.
Differences in plans and developments I hadn’t seen coming.
The last time I was writing a report for you all to read I was on a massive high from completing my first Grand Prix and my goal of all 14 races at last years GP. I remember putting last year’s Grand Slam medal proudly on display on a shelf and thinking, it will be tough doing this all over again, tougher than I thought as it happens.
On a routine Sunday ‘distance day’ run last September (and ironically on a lovely flat freshly tarmacked road..after all those fells!!) , I rolled my ankle right over flat to the floor with a horrid clunk. People have done worse and X-ray showed it wasn’t even broken. When the swelling calmed down it did however, as I suspected, leave me with tendon damage and a few months of rehab to do. This meant missing cross country, several planned winter races and leaving the off road/multi terrain behind for a good while. Winter training and races were obviously part of my prep plan for this years G.P. But its funny how things happen in life and send you on different paths. I was swimming at least twice weekly to keep up some kind of fitness level and doing my rehab exercises on the ankle in the pool, progressing quickly to mixing in some sessions on the bike turbo, then actual cycling because of the lesser impact on the joint as it strengthened. Without races to aim for and without the buzz of full on training, as always I needed a goal! One day in the pool it dawned on me that I was swimming and cycling a few times a week and the once shelved idea of a triathlon came to mind. Not doing things by half, of course I went straight online and booked myself on Lytham triathlon just a few months later! Gill thought I was mad but had no doubt in me. I returned to winter training with my club late on last year, and with the support of team mates and my coach John Roche, I soon moved back up a few groups and wasn’t too far off progress. Within the early few months of this year I had to factor in time on the bike, pool sessions and exercises on the ankle whilst managing my busy Sport Massage Therapy business. As it turns out I had a good debut triathlon at Lytham in May. Despite the strength and fitness I had gained, the G.P was right upon me and the ankle had done only a little off road running and therefore my multiple race fitness as opposed to last year was a big uncertainty. I had to face the fact that I would probably have to settle for a few G.P fixtures, wholly expecting the ankle to have had enough after a handful of races, especially as we know ..they come thick and fast ! I was however going to see how I far I could make it.
I think all who raced at the G.P this year will agree that there was another factor making this year a challenge. it was overall much hotter than last years series. Aside from a small few cooler drizzly races such as Pinhaw, Kelbrook, Burnley Lions and the finale at Boulsworth, it was a scorcher this year. That said, we were due a decent summer and the atmosphere as always was great. Hameldon was a tough start with that climb and I remember needing lots of water at the end!
Photo: the man-flu club! … taking a steady one at Trawden with team mate Chris Lawrence
Pinhaw and Wholan Nook are amongst that ones I really do like and although a bit tentative on the descents, my finishing times showed I actually wasn’t that far off pace, all things considered. It was great being in that ‘G.P atmosphere bubble’ amongst friends from different clubs and the banter returning on a weekly basis. A cooler temperature dip and return to my old stomping ground (road races) proved a good help at Colne at the Lions 10k. My race perception and pace strategy was a bit rusty though, as I broke away from a pack far too early and paid for it dearly as a few of my similar paced rivals flew past me on that second lap, reminding me of how much work remained ahead for me. There was no catching Trawden’s David Howard that day after that error. We get on well, often chatting while running together, he’s a top lad and I often pace with him during races. On the second lap his pacing was ace and far superior to my capabilities that night!
Kelbrook was cope able enough with a cool dull start but by now both the climbs and descends were proving tough on the tendons and I had to slow down when I felt the ankle less stable. It was somewhere around this point I invested in some new trail and fell shoes which did help somewhat. I was starting to think that maybe just maybe I had a few more races in me. I make no secret in the fact that I firmly believe Weets to be the toughest race of the series with its 2 challenging trig climbs, road section and undulating trail / terrain sections. The sun and heat returned with a vengeance and the second climb seemed to be without breeze and a real slog. Ironically, I managed to really sprint hard down the road at the end and was feeling much better at the finish than last year and my ankle wasn’t bad either. Some fell fitness was returning and after a few checks on the calendar, incredibly there was nothing to stop me making all the dates so, fingers crossed I decided to crack on.
Photo: finally, strong enough for a sprint finish ! …putting a kick in to the finish at Weets.
Trawden is probably my favourite race as it’s the first real trail race I ever did. This year was a bit of a disappointment as a bad cold stopped me attacking it at pace and doing it justice. A great thing that it did do though, was present the rare opportunity to run nice and steady with a couple of team mates and enjoy every view on route…a different experience. I recommend this to anyone, if only done once! I took it fairly steady and ran with Chris Lawrence, Donna Airey and Helen Beech who all were either equally ill, maxed out from doing Trailblaster the day before! or just pacing steadier than normal. It was another one done though, another race ticked off.
Hendon was the one I nearly blew up completely at. I have no excuse, I have experience ! I know the magnitude of the task, I just set off to damn quick on the first 6 miles and ended up drinking more water and pouring water over my head at every water station! Thanks to the organisers that had the hindsight to add several additional stations, and the volunteers and marshalls were a vital support as always. There was a moment climbing out of Thursden Valley in the heat that I actually felt quite odd and thought it may have been my first DNF! I knew I had to have a couple of very steady recovery miles and by the time I reached Colne I managed to get going again enough to steadily tap out my way up the punishing legendary lenches and to the eventual finish. Never is a T-Shirt so hard earned! a real badge of honour. The barbeque this year was a fab idea and made for a great atmosphere and fitting ending to such a special race.
I had friends coming to watch me at Towneley and that helped me kick on. Not an easy 10k by any means as leaving Towneley you have Mount Lane and the glorious tops of Burnley to come! but I was okay on the day, plenty of clubs represented that day. Record numbers for race attendance continue throughout this year!
Photo: Towneley’s an easy return to tarmac..isnt it?!
The notorious fast Greenway 5k followed (a must for PB chasers) and I was still managing the miles, pace and frequency of the races…just! I managed a fast-ish pace around most of the greenway with help of a nice new tight fitting compression ankle bandage, previous stretching sessions and having got into some creative positions on the foam roller! I wasn’t sure I’d be anywhere near last years 19:41 finish. It was hotter, no doubt, but it was the same for all of us. I only just went over the 20 minute mark and that was enough for me. Many of you will know my wife Gill and the banter that gets sent her way along the lines of ’when are you getting an orange vest! Gill ran Greenway, pretty well too! (unattached of course) and I believe it settled a few doubts in her mind on racing and I also believe it was a real influence in her decision shortly after to join Clayton, as of September!
Photos: The heat of Hendon & checking the watch at Greenway!
By the time the Worsthorne race came, there was no way I was going to settle for anything less than the Grand Slam after managing to get this far in. As my coach John Roche would say sometimes you just have to ‘Have a word!’. As always, I seemed to pace ok over the trails of Worsthorne, as it’s a regular training ground for us each week in summer. I do, however always feel it’s a real pull up that last climb from the woods to the last descent of Gorple Road. Seeing David with the camera and meg by his side always raises a smile though, even after toughest of climbs or longest trails most can get their finest race face on! As much as the broken, rocky surface of Gorple Road was showing up my tired ankle, I knew I had a weeks recovery before the finale.
If you’ve yet to experience all 14 races (which I totally recommend a go at!) it’s a special feeling when you head into the last race at Boulsworth. You know it’s a tough climb and a hard finishing race but you also know that you are steps away from going down in the roll of honours for that year! Boulsworth seems a massive climb, or perhaps it did to me after a long spell away from enough off road preparation prior to this year’s races ! The view of the Trawden show where you started from far below is worth the climb and I must have been buzzing for the finish as my descent was fairly good, didn’t lose a place as I recall and I even managed to P.B this last race, finishing under the hour. Incredibly, as attendance to races continues to grow every year, so does the number of those achieving all 14 races. Myself, Charis Rowlands of Trawden (multiple grand slam achiever) and others had bottles of bubbly at the ready and I must admit the celebrations felt just as sweet as last year.
Photos: Steep short climb at Sabden & heading out to Boulsworth to start the climb
So, what started out as potential damage limitation, and a 9 race qualifier at best, with a bit of digging deep and effort became the unthinkable, my second grand slam in as many years. The thing is, every year there are newbies, either to club running or the G.P and you just have to love watching their enthusiasm, epic journey and seeing them improve throughout. We’ve all been there and its very inspiring. There are a number of runners, amongst the top 10 and the bottom! many that I am now proud to call good friends who’ve had a superb first G.P, returned many years in succession or carry on performing great, well into the veteran categories. The great thing is, the G.P recognises this and the awards ceremony is always a highlight. We are so lucky that the money invested now means lots of trophies and awards are handed out in recognition. Imagine my delight and the irony that guest speaker this year would be GB medal winning triathlete Candice Heys with a very inspiring story of her journey. This year wasn’t planned to pan out like this, and next year I am intending to compete in more triathlons alongside my running and perhaps do a few more obscure races on the to-do list. I’m not thinking I’ll plan in or end up undertaking another grand slam attempt!
But……..what are plans, who knows?
And after all…
‘what a difference a year makes’……
Photo: Grand Slam achievers of the Pendle & Burnley Grand Prix 2018
Special thanks to Gill (as always in her support of my training/racing), brilliant coach John Roche, Jamie McIlvenny, Barry Brock and all G.P race organisers and marshalls, Tony Pilling and Natasha Newell for support and triathlon training advice, David Belshaw for hours spent photographing all athletes…and to all team mates and friends from all clubs who have shared my journey.
Mick Hughes (V40) Clayton-le-Moors Harriers